Coronavirus Statements by Boko Haram
Like most jihadist groups with names that make them immediately recognisable to the public and to consumers of international news, Boko Haram is not a single co-ordinated entity, but is factionalised and territorially divided. As such, it has not demonstrated an unambiguous, collective change of strategy since the coronavirus spread into Africa in February. However, the language used in its propaganda has been clear – the disease is associated with Western evils, the Western response is offensive to Islam, and the Muslim community will be immune to the disease.
Abubakar Shekau, leader of the core faction of Boko Haram, released a statement last week in which he thanked Allah for the pandemic. He denounced the international responses to the virus for being offensive, highlighting the fact that the pilgrimage to Mecca is not currently being permitted, pointing out that regular water consumption is against the requirement of a practising Muslim to fast during Ramadan, and denouncing the idea of social distancing, which prevents daily prayers from being made in their usual way. He not only blamed Western leaders for the outbreak and the offence (particularly French president Emmanuel Macron, who is closely allied with Group of Five – G5 – Sahel governments for counter-terror operations), but also the regional governments themselves. He effectively declared that Salafi Muslims would be immune because they conduct correct behaviour (including cutting off criminals’ hands, the washing of feet, etc).
Militants in Lake Chad
Militarily, Boko Haram has increased its activity in the first few months of 2020 in the area around Lake Chad. This region is strategically import for militants who do not seek to hold territory, as it is a lightly populated marshy scrub on the border between Chad and Cameroon, with the Nigerian frontier only 25 miles away, and the Nigerien border only 70 miles away. It is the perfect area for jihadists to fight battles on their own terms: while regional militaries act on a geopolitical remit, confined by borders, Boko Haram militants can retreat to safety over porous boundaries in stolen vehicles. Three attacks were conducted in this area in late January, one against civilians and two directly targeting the Chadian military. But then, in late March, a massive seven-hour assault was launched against a Chadian military position in Boma, killing at least 92 soldiers, reported as the worst ever defeat for the Chadian armed forces. On the same day, a militant attack against a Nigerian position at Borno, in the Lake Chad area on the other side of the border, led to the deaths of around 70 Nigerian soldiers. Both these attacks are believed to have been conducted by Boko Haram, a reflection of its genuine ambition, not to mention its successful co-ordination of large numbers of fighters and equipment (RPGs, trucks and speedboats were all reported in the attack).
It is natural for the commentator to conflate these two developments. The argument goes that as jihadist leaders foment anger amongst their supporters for the offences caused by the international community and the regional response to the pandemic, then they naturally feel empowered to direct their aggression towards regional governments and their militaries. After all, there are more opportunities available to jihadists now that national governments are prioritising the implementation of the lockdown, or the associated humanitarian response. Military operations against Boko Haram positions cannot be conducted with any long-term territorial exploitation because governments are focussing on the invisible threat from the virus.
However, it should not be forgotten that, as mentioned above, three of the attacks by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad area of Chad were conducted in late January, weeks before the virus had made any headway into Africa, and long before it looked as if it might start to unsettle any regional regimes. Boko Haram was already increasing its attacks in the border area, and it didn’t need the virus and the inspirational voice of Abubakar Shekau to mobilise it into any new action.
Problems in Chad
The key issue is that Chad is already unstable, and Boko Haram does not need the virus to increase instability in the area. Already one of the poorest countries in the world, the latest drop in oil prices has further squeezed the country’s economy, forcing public sector workers into pay cuts, and increasing poverty and unemployment. Even Chadian soldiers have been forced to take pay cuts, reducing their morale at an inopportune time. The country is surrounded by conflict, and the military is already needed to provide security across a number of insecure fronts (Libya to the north, the Sahel to the west, Darfur to the east, and the self-destructive Central African Republic to the south). In this context, the Lake Chad area is comparatively small. An even more pressing instability comes from the many different ethnic groups that make up the country, which are currently being held together by the politicking of President Idriss Déby; but he is old, has no clear successor, and there is likely to be unrest after he leaves office or dies. Lake Chad itself faces devastating ecological changes as a result of climate change – it has shrunk by 90% since the 1960s, leading to a 60% decline in fish numbers and the deterioration of pastureland in an area that provides food for over 40 million people across the region. The risk of humanitarian disaster and escalating numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is now very high, and as IDPs move throughout the country, the virus will continue to spread.
What the COVID-19 pandemic does for jihadists is to spread fear across the whole population, regardless of religion or ethnicity. It allows Boko Haram to make the religious arguments made by Abubakar Shekau, but with the overtones of cultural enmity and the undertones of economic disenfranchisement. The pandemic allows the group to spread its appeal to those Muslims in Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon who have suffered from poverty, who do not welcome any advice from western organisations, who have no intention of following unpopular restrictions imposed by their governments, and who do not expect much support from local healthcare. It is such a good recruitment opportunity for Boko Haram that Shekau was certainly forthright in his thanks to Allah for sending the virus.
The violence by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad area can only get worse in the face of the pandemic. Soldiers, particularly in Chad, will either need to be redeployed to provide humanitarian or logistic support if there are major breakouts in urban areas or will need to support the police with public order operations if civil unrest breaks out over restrictions, as has been seen across Africa. All the time, there are concerns over the security of the government in Ndjamena, again detracting military attention away from the conflict against Boko Haram. This does not even consider the potential for social breakdown if the pandemic escalates in urban areas to the extent that it has in countries in the developed world.
This is the second in a series of three articles looking at the similarities of different Islamist groups in different areas, considering al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, and Al Qaeda and IS affiliates in the Western Sahel.
Read part one on al-Shabab here.
*Photo shows state police in Ndjamena, Chad